Around the Water Cooler With Nestle Waters Chairman

US News

If there's one man who understands water coolers, it's Kim Jeffery.

The 64-year-old Greenwich, Conn. resident started in the water bottle business 35 years ago, when some people thought it was a funny idea for a company to sell water in a plastic bottle even though consumers could just pour it from the sink for free. But the doubters are no longer laughing.

"We didn't know it was going to, but the company got big," Jeffery says.

In 1978, Jeffery joined Great Waters of France, Inc., which distributed Perrier water across the United States. As Jeffery floated his way up to the top spot as CEO, the company swelled in size - acquiring the brands Poland Spring, Arrowhead and Zephyrhills, and changing its name to the Perrier Group of America. Seeing an opportunity, Nestle bought the company in 1992 and renamed it Nestle Waters North America.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Panera's CEO.]

Nestle asked Jeffery to stay and run what became the third largest non-alcoholic beverage company in the country. As president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America, Jeffery was responsible for 8,000 employees operating 30 manufacturing sites. After 20 years at the helm, he stepped down in February and took on a chairman position.

U.S. News caught up with Jeffery to find out what companies can do to be more environmentally friendly and why it's vital for offices to have an ample supply of water coolers. His responses have been edited.

This series is called "Around the Water Cooler," so I have to ask, do you think every office needs a water cooler?

Well, what could you be doing in an office that's more healthy than sitting around a water cooler drinking a glass of water? [laughs]

True! On a more serious note though, how important is it for offices to have a gathering space or break room for employees?

That's a great question you just asked me because we just rebuilt our corporate headquarters and moved to a new location after 30 years in a place that we kind of grew up in. We rebuilt it as a completely open architecture - it's LEED Gold certification I should say. On each of the four floors of the building, we have a town hall in the center that people have to come to to use the washroom, or to get a coffee or a bottle of water. Oftentimes, I'll walk up the stairs from the first floor, and on each one of the town hall floors people will actually be meeting there as opposed to a conference room.

I think open space where people can gather and meet and collaborate with one another, and get to know each other on a deeper level, is critical to a successful company culture.

And if there's a water cooler there then all the better, right?

Yeah. [laughs] We've got coolers full of water on every floor.

Nestle Waters owns several brands, including Ice Mountain, Deer Park and Ozarka. For executives in charge of multiple brands, do you have any advice for keeping track of each one?

In our case, four of our six brands are more than 100 years old with specific identities and regions that they have come from. It's important to know where it all began, why it resonated with consumers 100 years ago and how do you respect that going into the future. You've got to have a road map for your branding that really deals with the original relevance of the brand, and then you have to be true to some basic principles regarding the brand identity, the character of the brand and what's important for it in order to be able to still resonate with consumers.

Sometimes brands lose their way. You'll have 10 brand managers over a 25-year period, and at the end of 25 years, you don't know where that brand even began because they didn't have a road map for what the really important characteristics of that brand are to protect.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Harley-Davidson's CEO.]

Nestle Waters has tried to reduce its carbon footprint by producing bottles with less plastic. What are some simple things business owners can do to be more environmentally friendly?

The first thing we did was brought in a consultant who helped us map our carbon intensity throughout our supply chain. As an example, the bottle represents 55 percent of our carbon footprint. As a company that produces as much as we do, we have a very light carbon footprint because we don't have a lot of ingredients that go into our products that are carbon intensive. So if you attack an item that's 55 percent of your carbon footprint and determine that you're going to improve it, you can make a huge impact on the total impact of your company.

And then we started attacking the most important ones from a carbon standpoint and the items we could do something about. Since that time, we've tackled renewable energy, we use 100 percent recyclable content in our cardboard, and we've reduced our water usage, our energy usage and our raw material usage in plastic too.

Your company advocates for recycling, but if an employee cares about recycling and his or her workplace doesn't, what can the employee do?

This is [about] leadership. It starts at the top of the company, and it's very hard to change a company from in the middle or in the bottom. You've got to have an awareness by the people who lead these companies of what's important, what your employees care about, and your consumers care about, and make sure that you're addressing those issues.

So on the face of it, it's probably very hard for an employee to start their own recycling program inside a company that doesn't care about this stuff. In our company, if we're doing something wrong, we want our employees to talk to us about it so that we can take action on things that are important to our employees and to our consumers.

[Read: Top 16 Pieces of Career Advice.]

What is the best career advice you've ever received?

It came from my father actually: "Decide what you really like to do and build on it. Find something that you have a passion for." I've heard people say, "I want to make a lot of money. I want to get rich." But the way to get rich is not to think about what can I do to get rich. It's to find a passion, and if you find a passion and you really do well at it, chances are you're going to do just fine in your career.

The other thing is people do extremely well when they have one tool in their kit: a strong moral compass. I really believe people with a strong sense of moral values are going to make the right decisions in their life and in their company.

Every single day in society we see red lights, green lights and yellow lights in front of us. And we pretty much know what to do when there's a green light, but there's an awful lot of yellow lights and red lights that people don't pay attention to that get us in trouble. So a strong moral compass is really one of the most important things you can have as a young person starting out your career. If you don't have it, think about getting it.

Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.



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